July 31, 1996
Ken picked up a river permit from the rangers at Dinosaur National Monument, and asked if I wanted in on the trip. He and his wife, Cindy, and their three daughters, outfitted with a 16-foot self-bailing raft, were going whether or not I could come up with more boaters. I put the word out. The Green River flow is dam release at 4,500 cubic feet per second, not bad at all, and the Yampa peaked May 16 at 15,500 cfs, still cooking along at 5,000+. All kayakers I know were committed to later date trips this season, or otherwise engaged.
It really didn’t hurt that badly to park the kayak and borrow a raft. How bad could it be, beer and sun and a natural rowing machine for four days? We were a party of seven, including Bernie and I on a 16-foot Campways raft with mongo mileage, the “baloney boat.”
We put in at Gates of Lodore campground, Dinosaur National Monument, in the northwest corner of Colorado, on June 27, a Monday. The road trip was a short one from Steamboat Springs, with stops in Craig and Maybell. It’s a nice enough campground that folks stay here even if they are not river trekking. That would hurt though, since you have that view of the Gates, the one that Powell saw in 1869, beckoning and threatening ahead. Two little boats with seven little people, oaring into such a big place.
Normally one pushes a bit to get on the river early in the day, avoiding afternoon winds and weather, and making mucho miles before the evening camp. We put in late without worry this day, knowing that Wade and Curtis campgrounds were only three river miles from put-in. This is one of the nicer campgrounds, the site of an early cabin, the foundation still evident.
There’s a mellow feeling of immersion sitting in camp the first night, knowing that office, traffic, that whole gig, have no meaning here. The girls, ages 9, 10, and 11 years, are old hands at this, and swarm to the prime tent spot to get their night gear squared away. We set up the kitchen and get dinner started. Don’t talk to me about dehydrated food, we haul festive feasts in two big coolers — chicken parmesan fritata and a big green salad, cous-cous, gooey lemon bars for dessert.
Tons of light still remained after dinner, that slanted reddish light that ricochets off 400-foot canyon walls and narrows as the evening settles. We hiked upstream, two miles or so on a well-worn trail. On the way through sand and gravel left onshore by earlier ages of higher water, we stumble into the prettiest little sand dunes that run right down to the river’s edge, protected by large boulder piles on each end. This sand is the sweetest treat for feet, softer and finer grained than can be imagined.
The trail leads up a 200-meter side canyon, and past a massive 20-meter-long anvil-shaped boulder that has fallen from the rim to almost plug the crack. This was once a florid hanging garden of ferns and watercress, now almost dried up, and fed by a small spring that flows from the wall of the inverted bowl that forms the back of Winnie’s Grotto. The spring sends off a mist to shower the little bowl’s entrance, a happy cooler after a hot day.
Slight adjustments to the baloney boat rigging are made in the morning. Camp is struck and cleaned, no trace of our presence remains. When everything is rapid-ready, we launch. We are teased with riffles and tested with small, happy rapids, and we know what is coming. Upper Disaster Falls looms on the river map and in our anxieties.
The scout spot for Disaster is river left, a shallow cut bank giving access to a long path that winds up to the boulder field alongside the rapid. It’s a tricky one, too, even at this water level. Normally the rock garden at the top is shallow and slower, giving you a choice of entry routes. Now the current is raging into the top, leaving but one good entry line just left of center. I am aware of showing nervous eyes, one solid screw-up and we will pin the boat or get sucked into a hole and swim the rapid.
Bernie has been here before, but has never rowed this rapid, so I sit up front ready to “punch” the bow of the raft as we follow Ken. Positioning the boat perfectly in the current, Bernie starts the rush into the top. The majority of the river is inexorably driving us past a short rock in the center and straight toward a rounded conical boulder that sits just below at center left. We are within 10 feet of striking it (and a certain “pin”). Bernie pulls decisively to river center and we are swept right and down, past two 8-foot deep holes, out to the tongue. Then it’s roller coaster city, 8- or 10-foot-high standing waves. The boat flexes and dances, I punch the bow several times. We scream, we grin, we are through it. The tension of a thousand work days is whipped away from us, absolutely no other feeling like it.
Lower Disaster Falls is washed out, reduced to waves and foam. It’s a day on your favorite amusement-park ride. No worries. All beverages are in cans or plastic bottles, hung over the side of the raft in those tough mesh bags that onions are bulk-packed in. We call these meal cylinders, since beer obviously represents the pinnacle of concentrated high energy food technology, kept “river cold” by our host, the Green River. The canyons drift past, framing a stark cyan sky with no clouds. A bald eagle paces us, rising into the thermal until he is too high to spot again.
This is big rapid day. We glide over giggling riffles, staying in the current to avoid the eddies, getting our river maps out to see how soon we meet Hell’s Half Mile. When it arrives, we scout to find a long steep drop, filled with smallish Volkswagen- to bus-sized boulders. There is again but one good route, threading the needle between numerous rocks and holes. We tarry not, but forge ahead with bright quick eyes.
The oars feel solid and alive as I set up for the entry, using forward flutter strokes to make minor adjustments in position. Nothing roars so loud as this. Looming hard walls pass by unnoticed, my concentration is on the water. It’s a bit like skiing the trees, where it helps to focus on “not-the-obstacles” as well as “the obstacles.” Many times I hear Bernie call my attention to a particular wave or hole. “There’s a rock in it,” he’ll say, “a ripper, close to the surface.”
It seems long from the top, but Hell’s Half Mile isn’t really as long as it looks, just very busy and crowded with rocks and things. After we are done with it I am able to whisper my little saying safely: “Just a bunch of rocks and foam, no big deal.” What a wimp I am, thinking that this one would eat me and spit me out if I were kayaking.
Camp this second night is Rippling Brook, with it’s broad sandy beach, large quiet eddy, and the path up a large side canyon. Another awesome meal, including the fresh brown trout pulled out of the eddy line just offshore. It’s funny to watch four or five large chub feeding at the surface in the calm pool by the beach, like tame koi in a Japanese garden pond. This becomes our favorite campsite, just plain quiet and beautiful. Our first full day on the river.
The group is adjusting well to river life. Another day or two and we would be “over the hump,” ready to stay on-river for weeks, for the rest of our lives. We get up each day, stumble around camp in the cool morning. Breakfast discussion is of the river day, the packing order, the running order, always with long pauses. We each tend to drift into thousand-mile stares, lost, immersed in the canyon, not thinking, just being. Our arms are sore with yesterday’s oaring, noses red from the sun. At last we are at home, where we belong, on the river as if forever.
Soon after hitting the water on day three we arrive in Echo Park, where the Yampa flows into the Green. A sheer wall, at least 500- or 600-feet high, with the most fantastic multicolored patterns of desert varnish, stands guardian at the confluence. This is Steamboat Rock, called Echo Rock by Powell in 1869, that occupies the entire inside loop of a huge meander, as the river literally flows around three sides of it. Be sure to read Powell’s account of rescue from a narrow shelf on this monster rock by crewman Bradley’s novel use of long underwear. The echo is, in a word, awesome.
The Yampa is ripping along, no lack of water here, and promises to add speed and size to all rapids downstream. During the stop for lunch in Echo Park, we see an Outward Bound trip in three rafts. It’s at this lazy sand trail that Ken enjoys talking with a three-generation family of Utah ranchers that are spending the day sightseeing the area. Another remarkable feature here is Mitten Fault, a magnificently stratified uplift that spans a loop of the river, visible from both sides.
Night three is spent at Jones Hole, a thickly wooded former hideaway for desperadoes of a bygone day. The side canyon holds a crisp clear creek, headed by a state fish hatchery and some interesting drainage formations. The largest on-river campsite on this run, it holds four separate sites for large groups, complete with picnic tables. On a hot day it is really a blessing to tie up the boat and walk into these cool wooded glades. Take the bug juice and be prepared to use it, though, because at night these wetlands can get pesky with mosquitos.
Dinner is a lazy feast, venison burritos with real Mexican salsa. The end of the day is typically spent lounging with beverage and conversation as the last light leaves the tops of the red walls and the black crack of night sky reveals the stars. We sit up each night by a snapping campfire (bring your own firewood), and I read aloud from Powell’s journal of this run. We laugh and shake our heads at the fortitude it took to run this for the first time.
The morning starts a bit cloudy and cool and we have our rubber clothing on, or handy, all day. There is no realistic alternative to making 19 river miles and camping at take out. No one thinks of this as the last river day. There is too much satisfaction from the trip so far to dwell on its end.
Island Park is full of meanders, islands, wetlands. Here there are several fun rapids formed by short walls that are undercut by the river. Nothing treacherous, just big happy rollers with a strong lateral from one side. This run is an excellent one for training novice river runners in the basic on-river skills: oarsmanship, reading the river, and staying in the current.
After several hours of churning and spitting the clouds finally deliver. We are deluged, driven backward in our tracks by a monstrously hard burst of rain, stunned at how gray and scary the valley has gotten. Ken and I continue to oar our respective craft. The young ladies huddle together in the bow of his boat, covered in rain gear and a tarp, murmuring and giggling in a separate world.
Microbursts and massive crashing precipitation hit my nose. Rainwater is a protective coating that covers my body, sealing in beer and good humor. Nothing can crack the pure enjoyment of these elements that lash us. We throw plastic bottles of schnapps at one another, using its heat to stoke our defiant fires. Still our rafts move ahead, oars in the current, moving downriver.
The rain slows and stops within an hour. Small blonde adventurers emerge from their vinyl den, shrilly enjoying the break in the storm. There is plenty of time to enjoy the increasing spread of the valley as it widens, very green and inviting at this time of year. On the approach to Split Mountain everyone enjoys the return of the sun and laughs at the wet whipping that has passed. Thinking about it now, I realize that we did not have to run a single rapid during that downpour.
The put-in at the entrance to Split Mountain trips is our last on-river rest stop, and here we meet the most interesting group that we have seen. Eighteen or 20 people from Idaho, Oregon and Utah are on rafts, supporting inflatable and regular plastic kayaks. The thing that really gives me hope for the future is this: At least half of these boaters were youngsters from 12 to 17. One girl about 15 proudly tells me of her trip through Hell’s Half Mile in a rubber ducky. I admired her, knowing that I would have been quite nervous in a kayak, much less one of those inflatable ones. These families really have a handle on the kind of time to spend with their kids, and I admire that the most.
Moonshine, SOB and Schoolboy rapids have all been known to snare the unwary. Our adrenaline rises for these last few rides through big waves, some standing 7-feet high. Then the final bend in the river is reached, and around it we find the take-out.
After breaking down the boats we drive 100 meters to the campsite and settle in for a barbecue. That evening we talk to the river ranger and nod knowingly at one another when he tells us that the flow at this point is currently 12,000 cubic feet per second. We joke with him, claiming that at least half of that came from the hour of rain that hit us. It almost feels like another river night: We still sleep within the gentle crashing of river riffles, canyon walls, and the crystal starred sky still cover us.
Friday morning, June 28, is our first day back to civilization. A “Universal Grandma” drives up in her park maintenance vehicle as we pack the trailer for the road trip home at the Gates of Lodore campground. She is one in a million retired Americans, spends her days cleaning the bathrooms and campsites of this federal recreational facility.
On the way out of Dinosaur Monument, we stop and visit the Dinosaur Quarry. It’s the working area built around a cliff that holds many dinosaur skeletons, an entire fossilized stream bank. Hollywood special effects are not needed to help you feel the immensity contained here. You can touch their leg bones, their skulls, look way up as you stand next to them. On the lowest level we read the labels of crates, packed with huge fossils wrapped in plaster, bound for museums all over the world.
Each week since the trip, I hear the water from Lodore more faintly. Even the hour-long kayak run through town (Yampa River through Steamboat Springs) is too low to get me high.
River time is real time. River life is real life. The rest of this is a sick, limp lie that we lead, working hard and saving up for the next time we can get back on the river.
Story and photos by Kent Morrison